Phages: The powerful new bio-ammo in superbug war
Keep calm and carry on research
They're the most abundant form of life on Earth – they have astonishing properties – and we know bugger-all about them.
Bacteriophages were only discovered in 1912, and the Red Army and the Wehrmacht both carried phage water as a bacterial treatment. Then antibiotics came along and science ignored bacteriophages for a very long time. Apart from research at one institute in Georgia, very little science was done for 60 years. Now, phages are being re-appraised in the fight against infection: bacteria are a phage's natural enemy, and with antibiotics becoming increasingly ineffective, we need the little critters more than ever.
Israeli scientists at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine in Tel Aviv have established in principle the technique of ensuring bacteria do not retain their resistance to antibiotics.
"Unlike conventional bacteriophage therapy, the system does not rely on the phage's ability to kill pathogens in the infected host, but instead, to deliver genetic constructs into the bacteria, and thus render them sensitive to antibiotics prior to host infection," they note in the abstract to their paper, Reversing Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics by Phage-Mediated Delivery of Dominant Sensitive Genes, here.
"Genetically altered phages can be developed for any bacterium and used in hospital settings to reverse antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause hospital-acquired infections," the Wall Street Journal notes.
If successful it calls a halt to the arms race between antibiotic-resistant bugs, and superbugs (such as MRSA), and the pharmaceutical industry's ever more powerful bunker-busting antibiotics. The NHS has trialled phages as protection against MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a variant of Staphylococcus) noting their success. Phage treatment was used to guard wounds. Startups such as Fixed Phage, a spin-out from Scotland's Strathclyde University, describes it as "not the end of the battle, but it is an endless supply of ammunition to fight the war".
Which is very timely. Last week, supermarket science tabloid Nature [surely some mistake? Ed] splashed with news of "a totally resistant TB strain", prompting alarmist headlines around the world. And a "calm down dearies" from the World Health Organisation.
We expect the phage story to get rather less media attention. Pity. ®
Soviet research and use
The article rather downplays the amount of research, production and actual treatment that was carried out in the USSR, communist bloc, and now the post-Soviet countries
Life - what exactly is it?
“They're the most abundant form of life on Earth – they have astonishing properties – and we know bugger-all about them.”
That’s not quite right on a few counts. First of all, they are not “technically” alive. They do not respire or reproduce without another thing’s cellular machinery, leading to a debate over what constitutes “alive”.
Secondly, we know some stuff about them. Even in the 80’s when I was a mere undergraduate the entire genome of phage lambda (E Coli phage) had been mapped, and its entire process at the molecular level well understood. We knew how it bound to the target, how it put its DNA in it, and then how each gene was expressed in sequence and what it did to hijack the bacterium and pump out more phages. There’s more to that than it sounds, it had to get one of its genes transcribed to to make an enzyme which would transcribe the next gene. Some genes ran “backwards” across others, and we knew how those worked too.
A human comparison would be Hox genes in embryology.
Feel free to look it up on wiki. Oh, wait...
I remember seeing a Panorama (or something similar) report in the late 80s/early 90's about Phages use as an anti-biotic in the USSR. I honestly thought they would have been in use for decades by now.
Not exactly 'New' bio-ammo.